Empath or Trauma? Let's discuss

In recent years the term Empath has become quite the buzzword but what does it actually mean and are there as many empaths as we are led to believe?

When I first became involved in the spiritual scene it was via a medium coming to my house to see if they could connect to any spirits that my 3 year old kept talking to, and about. That 3 year old is now nearly 19 so quite a while ago! However one thing sticks clearly in my mind. The medium said the reason my child and I kept picking up on spirit and people feelings around us was because we were empaths. (Imagine a flourish to the word that makes it feel super special and mysterious)

I remember feeling so special and validated as she explained to me what empaths are and feeling like I had finally discovered why I had always felt different. But I also remember her being really clear that empaths often feel they are cursed to feel everything as they do, until they learn to protect themselves, shield from others and hone their gift.

At the time I was 23 years old, going through a difficult separation from a controlling person and learning to care for this amazing kid who I hadn't really had the opportunity to parent in a way that fit my beliefs, for those first 3 years. That child also turned out to be an autistic person and those early years were super hard.

Ultimately I was in the midst of some really hard stuff, I was still in the depths of grief around my father's death several years earlier and had experienced several traumatic relationships.

Life felt like a total mess and then someone told me I was an Empath and suddenly I felt like that was why everything had felt so hard. I just needed to learn to control this gift the universe had given me and then everything would be fine.

Spoiler alert, it wasn't fine...

Before I continue with my story let's get a handle on trying to define what an Empath is. Because there is so much information out there and some of it is pretty vague or contradictory to other info.

For the record yes, I do believe they indeed exist and you may well be one, but there is also a chance that you arent.

Let's look from the perspective of the scientific community first.

As you may know spiritual abilities and metaphysics are not something that gets a huge amount of funds to research, but there is some. The reason I'm saying spiritual is because the term empath doesn't actually come from psychology, or science. It first showed up in an episode of Star Trek in 1968 (massive Trekkie here!) and features in the Marvel universe, often in the form of villains.

Now, I do believe that science has a long way to go in understanding much about humans but I also like to take a balanced approach to things so here's the info from the science community, about empaths in general.

What their research shows is that empaths do indeed exist and their abilities are really quite specific.

Empaths have an ability to physically feel sensation on themselves, originating from someone else being touched and they have a physical and neurological response to that.

They also have a much higher amygdala response than others, when shown fearful expressions in tests. In fact in those same studies, psychopaths have a much lower amygdala response and have been shown to have much smaller amygdala's in general too.

The take away from the science community is that we all experience empathy on a spectrum and it seems empaths may to at one end, with psychopaths at the other end, and the rest of us settling somewhere inbetween.

Via their studies its believed true empaths (via their definition) account for around 1% of the population. To put that into perspective it means around 680 thousand people in the UK (population 68million) or 2,500 empaths in Southampton where I live. (Population 254,000).

Now for the spiritual arena's view on empaths.

In the spiritual arena empaths are often described as people who feel others feelings as their own. Its said this can be draining and overwhelming as well as hard to learn to control, but is also seen as a gift to enable empaths to use this skill to help and support others.

Empaths in this respect are acutely aware of others feelings, noticing the fear, anger, joy, pain on a much more energetic level. They are often bullshit detectors and seem to have an ability to see to the core of a person which can be unsettling for both parties.

The difference between empathy and being an empath in the spiritual arena is that empathy means you can imagine how another person feels through the lense of your own experiences, whereas an empath will feel the others actual emotions and pain, taking them on as their own.

Back to my story

Being told my child and I were empaths took me down all kinds of rabbit holes and most importantly for me at the time, I now had a reason why life had been hard outside of my own choices and actions (and the actions of others).

My friends let be real for a moment. This was a dangerous road to go down because for a while, I had a label that explained everything away.

As an empath, I couldn't help these things happening, I just felt everything more deeply than others and this led to the kinds of situations I found myself in. After all, why else would I have ended up in relationships with people who were in pain, if not so that I could help them with their suffering? To heal their wounds so they could be the people I knew they could be?

I'm telling you now my friends, the wounded healer empath is not a good look on anyone.

Don't get me wrong, being told I was an empath led to me discovering my psychic and mediumistic skills and for that I am thankful but it also gave me, a person who at the time was essentially vulnerable and traumatised a way to shift perspective from working to heal that trauma, to accepting its just how it is for 'us empaths'.

Would i say im an empath? Hmmm im not sure. What I would say I am is a highly empathic person with fantastic interpersonal skills and expertise in listening and supporting others, that I have trained in.

With regard to my healing work, I do have skills that enable me to choose to physically feel on my own body where a person's pain is and in mediumship, I can choose to allow spirit to show me on my own body symptoms and issues that led to their passing but for me, these are skills I have honed over the years to enable me to do my work efficiently and with ease. I dont feel their pain as my own, I feel their pain as theirs on me momentarily, to accurately and efficiently do my work.

I guess in that sense I am definitely more akin to that trekkie episodes definition of an Empath all those years ago. (A woman touches the forehead of Kirk where he has a cut and it disappears, appearing on her own head in the same place)

So, if there aren't as many empaths out there as we think, what are they instead?

I can only go by my own experiences but I think its important to recognise the history of the person identifying or being identified as an empath.

The word empath has become synonymous with spirituality and I think we need to recognise the nuance here, if we want to be quality coaches, teachers and healers in the spiritual community.

Because I'm not sure if you've caught on yet but the traits of an Empath are also very similar to the experiences of a trauma survivor.

For example, survivors of childhood trauma can have brains that are significantly different to those who have not experienced childhood trauma.

  • The amygdala is larger resulting in hypervigilence, emotional response and fear response.

  • The pre frontal cortex is smaller resulting in less ability to reason and process logically.